New Delhi: The government on 25 September sought to build a consensus on opening the legal services sector for foreign players and assured domestic law firms of putting in place adequate safeguards to protect their interests.
“We are negotiating this issue. Last week, I invited leading legal firms of the country on a negotiating table... By end of October we will meet again,” Law Minister H.R. Bhardwaj told reporters on the sidelines of an Assocham seminar here.
Some of the firms were against opening up of legal services at the last week’s meeting, Bhardwaj said, adding that he had invited them to suggest safeguards since the decision would be taken only after all of them agree.
“Some of them said we are new firms, we would not be able to face them (foreign law firms). I asked them what safeguards do you want? We will provide them,” he said.
Claiming that opening up of legal services would bring in investment by foreign firms and would provide better job opportunities to Indian lawyers, he said the legal community should not shy away from competition.
The law minister, however, clarified that foreign lawyers would not be allowed to practise Indian law in the country. “Only Indian lawyers could practise Indian law here. Foreign lawyers would be allowed to practise their respective country’s law only,” he said.
The country, he said, is paying foreign law firms to avail of legal services. “In Enron case, I paid Rs100 crore (to overseas law firms),” Bhardwaj said, referring to the arbitration proceedings initiated against the Indian government by foreign lenders to the Dabhol power project.
Bhardwaj said he is in consultations with International Court of Justice, Hague and London Court of International Arbitration to open up offices in India.
To a query whether foreign law firms would be permitted through a Limited Liability Partnership method or would be allowed to open up their own shop, Bhardwaj said these issues are being negotiated. “We are also negotiating whether regulatory mechanism would be set up,” he added.
Assocham Expert Committee on Direct Tax O. P. Vaish said tax lawyers do not have objections to opening up of legal services.
To this, Bhardwaj said the bar could not be segregated and the whole legal community should be agreeable to the issue.
Some law firms opposed the entry of foreign counterparts since many advanced countries do not recognise Indian law degrees.
Some lawyers present at the meeting said there is a lacunae in the legal education in the country and there is no mechanism to conduct a bar examination before lawyers start practising, they said.
Bhardwaj also called for setting up alternate dispute arrangements (ADRs) for out of the court settlements.